Every time Anna Hyman visits the Pas-de-Calais region of France she is astonished at how much there is to see and do, and her most recent short break was no exception.
An Art Gallery with a difference
This art gallery was not what I had expected. I am more used to ones where visitors gaze in reverence and from a slight distance at the exhibits hanging on walls. But Louvre-Lens gallery was different, very different.
Visitors to Paris will most certainly be familiar with the Louvre, the former royal residence, which has become one of the most famous art galleries in the world, housing as it does a vast collection of priceless works of art.
At the beginning of the 21st century it was decided that a second Louvre museum should be built in one of the French regions. The Pas-de-Calais applied and the town of Lens was chosen as an ideal location.
Lens wealth had been acquired from mining following the discovery of coal in 1849. But the town was to become a victim of two wars – reduced to rubble in World War I and suffering much damage from the bombs of World War II. To add to its difficulties, mining ceased in Lens in the 1980s and the town slipped into a financial decline. Until, that is, the decision in 2005 to build the Louvre extension at Lens. The museum opened in 2012.
Accessible art with a wow factor
It’s built on a slight mound, made from the spoils from an old colliery which closed in 1960.
The colliery site has been cleared and re-landscaped and in its place is a modern steel and glass single story building made up of inter-linking rectangles close to a rather elegant looking glassed in restaurant.
The Museum’s spacious entrance hall is light and airy affording plenty of space for a shop, café, picnic area and research facilities. In the basement are cloak rooms and an area protected by large windows containing art work storage facilities plus restoration workshops, which are from time to time open to the public. A
The Gallery of Time
The main exhibition room is the Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) stretching some 120m. And it is this room that gives Louvres-Lens its wow factor. For a start its open-plan, for second its walls are reflective aluminium and third the many exhibits, arranged chronologically, ranging from sculpture to paintings and even furniture, are displayed on free-standing accessible stands, enabling visitors to wander freely between them. www.louvrelens.fr
The Art Deco station looks like a train
The museum, very close to the famous sports stadium noted for hosting major international events, is easy to reach. Calais is 90km away (an easy hour and a half drive from the ferry port); or by train from Calais or Paris. It is also only a few minutes’ walk from the train station to Louvre-Lens but should you not want to walk a free bus runs between the two.
Before leaving the station take a minute to stand and look around. Destroyed during WWI it was rebuilt in 1926 by one of Le Corbusier’s students in the Art Deco style. And yes, from the outside it does resemble an old steam train.
Did anybody say cheese?
If Art Deco is not your thing but cheese is, head towards the town centre and rue René Lanoy and look out for the dark green painted shop of renowned cheese expert Philippe Olivier. Cheese is a passion for Olivier who favours small producers rather than large commercial operations. Inside the shop are cheeses galore, along with lots of other related goodies.
We tasted several cheeses before settling for some Maroilles which was kindly vacuum- packed for us to take back to the UK. www.philippeolivier.fr
A tasty lunch
The cheese had obviously given us an appetite for we did full justice to our excellent lunch at Al’Fosse 7 restaurant in Avion. Cosy, crowded and welcoming Al’Fosse 7 serves up well-cooked, generous portions of extremely tasty casseroles and other home-cooked dishes. It has been decorated and furnished to resemble a mine – full of memorabilia paying homage to the area’s mining heritage. www.alfosse7.fr
Page 24 Brewery
Next stop on our itinerary was the Page 24 Brewery at Aix Noulette, not far from Lens.
The brewery was founded in 2003 by Stéphane and Vincent Bogaert and Hervé Descamps. It’s subsequently gone from strength to strength and currently produces some 40,000 bottles a week.
The men are proud of using as far as possible locally-sourced hops and barley and brewing by traditional infusion mash methods, plus cool temperature storage for several weeks prior to bottling and a final fermentation in the bottle. This method not only acts as a preservative but also ensures a richer beer.
What’s in a name?
Why Page 24? It refers to the writings of the scholarly 12th century German Benedictine abbess and saint – Hildegarde de Bingen. In one of her texts, allegedly on page 24, she refers to the benefits of drinking beer (she was also a brewer) and gives her recipe. Unfortunately the page is missing, but one of the beers has been named after her, and in any event the number 24 plays a significant role in the brewing process of these beers.
Needless to say we non-drivers lingered long enough to try one of the beers and also buy a selection from the shop. www.page24.fr
Sad reminders of two World Wars
Wherever you travel through the Pas-de-Calais countryside you cannot but help spot the all too many cemeteries and memorials, poignant reminders of the two world wars.
The utter devastation of the area is brought vividly to life at the ultra-modern Lens’ 14-18 War and Peace History Centre and at the moving Ring of Remembrance where the names of some 580,000 soldiers who lost their lives in Nord-Pas-de-Calais are engraved.
Lens’ 14-18 War and Peace History Centre
In a series of black concrete rooms described as chapels the history of the conflict from the outbreak of the war in the region, to the region’s subsequent reconstruction is told through letters, archives, photographs and films sourced from around the world involving all the nationalities caught up in the bitter struggles for the plains of Artois. It is superbly designed, and displayed and painfully thought-provoking. www.lens14-18.com
A city virtually destroyed
Not far away is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais region – Arras. Arras too was virtually destroyed in the WWI and suffered bomb damage in the WWII.
It’s an attractive city with two magnificent squares La Grand’ Place and La Place des Heros. Surrounding the squares are some 150 faithfully restored Flemish baroque gabled and arcaded houses serving as a reminder of the wealth and power that the city held in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Beneath the houses and the squares are the Boves a series of interconnecting cellars and tunnels which subsequently provided vital shelter for the inhabitants during the war years.
Twice a week the squares become hives of activity – market days.
In one square is general merchandise and in the other food glorious food where stall after stall is arrayed with tempting goodies and the smell of cooking, cheese and charcuterie hangs deliciously on the air.
A whole stall is devoted purely to mushrooms; others to cheese, charcuterie, or fruit and veg. Look out for La Finarde, a highly recommended cheese stall
Very close by and a must for lovers of l’andouillette in 3 rue du Marché au file, is A l’andouilette d’Arras , the quality of Hugues Becquart’s sausages we gather is second to none.
The Town Hall and Belfry are breathtaking at night
In the smaller of the two squares is the city’s Gothic Town Hall and its Belfry. Climb the 75m high Belfry for a rooftop view of the city.
The two buildings were built 1463 – 1554. They too suffered WWI damage and have been rebuilt in a slightly less exuberant style; it’s hard to believe that they were originally even more ornate.
Beautiful by day the Town Hall and Belfry is breath taking by night when floodlit. No wonder that the belfry has been awarded World Heritage status.
The Tourist Office is in the magnificent Town Hall making a visit to the former even more worthwhile.
The ground floor is impressive indeed with its huge mural depicting people going about their 16th century daily life.
Above the entrance hall the beautiful panelled council room.
Fine Arts Museum
The Fine Arts Museum in part of the Saint-Vaast Abbey is noted for its exceptionally fine collections ranging from paintings and sculptures to the Arras porcelains and tapestries that contributed to the city’s fame and finances.
Boursot’s Wine Collection, Ardres
Very popular with visitors is Boursot’s Wine Collection at 9 Rue de l’Arsenal, Ardres. This fabulous wine shop is run by wine expert Guy Boursot. No problem if you are not a French speaker as Guy has both French and English ancestry and background.
Wine is part of the family history
Family legend has it that the Boursot family were responsible for introducing dry champagne to the UK. Champagne originally was much sweeter than what we prefer today. Adolphe Boursot a friend of the legendary Perrier family (of Perrier-Jouët fame) set up a wine importing business in London to import his friend’s champagne.
In the late 1860s they experimented by shipping the new dry version to the UK. The experiment was successful; the rest is history.
A wide range of French wines
Over a century later Guy Boursot is continuing the trend of introducing the UK market, by means of his shops, lectures, articles, to the fascinating world of wine, and in particular to French wines.
Ardres is a mere 15 minutes’ drive from Calais and parking is easy. Boursot’s Wine Collection sells a wide range of French wines including champagne and some spirits, with wine prices starting at about £3.50. They are happy to give advice and many of the wines are available for tasting.
No problem if you only want to buy one bottle. Incidentally there is also a branch of the shop in Marquise.
And so to lace
Somewhat to our surprise we were to discover that Guy Boursot’s family also had a link with Calais lace production. Adolphe Boursot having moved to London became actively engaged not only in importing champagne but also in helping to finance the rapidly developing Calais lace industry.
Looms smuggled over from Nottingham
England had been carefully guarding its ability to make the less-expensive machine lace; indeed anybody found guilty of exporting the looms could face the death sentence.
However, parts of lace making looms were smuggled across the Channel from Nottingham (the centre for English machine made lace) to France and reassembled there.
In 1816 three English men succeeded in getting the necessary machines to France and set up a small factory in Calais.
Museum of Lace and Fashion
On display in Calais at the Cité Dentelle Mode (Museum of Lace and Fashion) are not only exquisite examples of hand-made lace dating from the 16th century but also the story of machine made lace including the development of Leavers looms, the Jacquard system and computerisation.
On one of the floors five mighty machines from Nottingham can be viewed working away, each one making a different lace.
Not forgotten is the role that lace plays in modern day clothes. Also on site is a shop, workshops, a resource centre and a restaurant. www.cite-dentelle.fr
Lunch and chocolates in St Omer
St Omer is one of our favourite towns and we just had time to call in there for a quick lunch and a little shopping.
We can heartily recommend the tiny Le Sept de Coeur restaurant run by Cédric Roussel Dussault.
He not only cooks tasty family dishes from the Ardèche, but waits at table too: www.leseptdecoeur.fr
Lunch was followed by a dash to Rue des Clouteries and Chocolat de Beussent-Lachelle – their chocolates are a family favourite: www.choco-france.com.
Then back on the road to Calais for the afternoon DFDS ferry, with its quiet and comfortable premium lounge and welcoming glass of prosecco, and the Channel crossing back to Dover.
It’s amazing how much you can fit into two days.
Pas-de-Calais Tourism: www.pas-de-calais.com
DFDS Ferries: Prices for travel with DFDS from Dover to Calais or Dunkirk start from £39 each way for a car and nine people.
All ships in the modern fleet feature a premium lounge, which can be booked for an additional £12 per person each way.
The lounge provides a quiet space with free newspapers, fresh fruit, pastries and petits-fours, soft drinks and a glass of Prosecco upon arrival.
Prices vary in line with demand and are subject to change.
Crossings on the Dover-Calais route take 90 minutes each way and Dover-Dunkirk sailings are two hours.
Customers are advised to check in at least 45 minutes before their scheduled sailing time, or 60 minutes prior during busy periods.
Book at www.dfds.co.uk.
We stayed at:
For our first night in the Pas-de-Calais we stayed at the ever popular, and justifiably so, Najeti Hôtel Château Tilques, a mere five kilometres from St Omer.
Set in lovely grounds and built in the 19th century it offers 52 elegant and well-equipped rooms, plus an indoor swimming pool and tennis court.
There is also a comfortable bar/lounge and an excellent restaurant. www.tilques.najeti.fr
Our second night was in Arras at another Najeti Hôtel, the Najeti Hôtel de L’Univers, fabulously located in a quiet, small court yard an easy walk from the bustling heart of Arras.
Modern well-equipped rooms in this old Jesuit monastery, along with an attractive bar area, and a gourmet restaurant. www.univers.najeti.fr